Sunday, June 30, 2019

'Ring Up the Curtain' has Harold Lloyd bringing down the house

Ring Up the Curtain (1919)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Harry Pollard, Bud Jamison, and William Blaisedell
Director: Alf Goulding
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An incompetent stage hand (Lloyd) gets the hots for a flirtatious leading lady (Daniels) and ruins a performance as a result.

"Ring Up the Curtain" is a fun little tale that demonstrates the importance of having a good backstage crew supporting the performers on stage... because all the complications in this picture arise from the bad choices made by a theatre owner (William Blaisdell) in hiring a bunch of drunks. He compounds his error by firing them all, except for one, as a troupe of vaudevillians are about to put on a performance. His catastrophic mistakes are to our benefit, however, as the chaos Harold the Useless Stagehand is hilarious to watch.

The film isn't perfect, though. After a strong start, featuring the sacking of the drunken stagehands, about a minute is wasted on the theatre owner abusing Harold and some shtick with a bowler hat that drags on for too long. Once Bebe Daniels and the rest of the acting troupe shows up, the film gets back on target.

The good outweighs the bad here, though. The scene were Harold out-and-out sexually harasses Bebe Daniels in the middle of the performance and ends up on stage fighting with her husband (played by Harry Pollard) is already comedy gold, but it's made even funnier by the way Harold forces an actor practicing his lines to hold the rigging ropes in the wing.

But don't just take my word for how fun this little movie is; I've made it easy for you to check it out by embedding it below, via YouTube.

Friday, June 28, 2019

'Show Business' is full of funny business

Show Business (1932)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin, Monte Collins, and Otto Fries
Director: Jules White
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A pair of vaudevillians and their singing monkey (Pitts and Todd) get a last minute gig as a replacement act in a touring show. Things start to go wrong even before they set foot on stage, as they end up at odds with the show's ego-maniacal star (Garvin).

At the center of "Show Business" is a professional lifestyle that was coming to an end by the 1930s--that of a member of a traveling variety show that criss-crossed the nation on any number of theatrical circuits. Muscians, chorus girls, actors, and comedians... all would travel together from engagement to engagement, essentially spending their lives on the road (or, more specifically, on the train tracks). Headliners would often be fixed, but smaller acts would drop in and drop out, which is where our heroines enter the picture

After a weak beginning that should have just been used to set up the monkey and the excuse for later showing viewers Thelma Todd walking around in a hat and her underwear, but which is crippled by Pitts doing some unfunny prop comedy involving a telephone and a half-eaten apple, followed by a just-as-unfunny bit involving a dresser drawer, the film really takes off. From the moment the action changes to the train station, and we're introduced to the film's antagonists, Anita Garvin and her manager Monte Collins, through to the final fade-out, we are treated to hilarious chaos and some fine comedic acting.

In "Show Business", Thelma Todd gets to show off what made her such a fantastic screen actress (and I'm taking about the skimpy outfit she's almost not wearing in the pseudo-catfight at the train station). There are multiple in this picture where her face says everything that's going through the character's mind, and just watching Todd's facial expressions change (as she goes from confused to angry, or self-righteously indignant to embarrassed) provide some of the film's funniest moments.

Anita Garvin also shines in this picture, playing a variant of the shrewish wife she'd portray in several Laurel & Hardy pictures, but here the main target of her ire is her manager played by Monte Collins while Todd and Pitts and their mon inadvertently make both their lives very difficult. It's a common in these kinds of shorts to see self-important characters be humiliated by the bumbling clowns with whom the audience's sympathies rests, and Garvin is so good at playing an obnoxious, self-entitled primadonna that her unraveling is extra satisfying. Meanwhile, Collins occupies an interesting place in the configuration of characters, swinging from threat to our heroines to an almost ally, as he tries to get them settled in the train so he can be spared any more abuse from Garvin.

The only disappointing member of the main cast here is ZaSu Pitts, but I don't think it's her fault. For the most part, she was stuck doing unfunny prop comedy, and her fidgety character seemed out of place surrounded by all the loud, overly theatrical types that occupy the rest of the film. That said, she had a couple shining moments in the part of the film at the train station, as she is trying to convince a police officer (Otto Fries) why it's a bad idea for him to make Thelma take off her coat; and later after she and Thelma wake everybody up on a sleeping car while trying to get into their bunk themselves.

Despite its weak opening, and a couple minor hiccups along the way (there is a point where some time must pass between scenes, but there's no indication of it, so the film feels a bit disorganized for few moments) "Show Business" is a fun entry in the Todd/Pitts series of comedies that benefits both for a strong script and the fact that most of its cast is in parts that let them play to their strengths as performers. (Although it's a shame that we never get to hear the monkey sing.

"Show Business" is one of 17 shorts contained in a two DVD set that features all of the films Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made together.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Picture Perfect Special: It's June!

Born on June 25, 1925, June Lockhart got her start as a child actor on the stage, and began acting in film as a teenager during the early 1940s, with an emphasis on Westerns and other historical dramas.

By the 1950s, Lockhart had become a successful television acgtress. She had recurring roles on several series and was a frequent star or supporting actress on episodes of various anthology shows.

As the 1960s arrived, June became one of the most recognizable TV Moms for several generations of Americans, playing the mother on both "Lassie" and "Lost in Space". She also had a recurring as as Dr. Janet Craig during the last three seasons of "Petticoat Junction".

Lockhart has appeared in over 170 movies and TV shows, with her career spanning eight decades. She most recently appeared in the based-on-a-true story comedy "Zombie Hamlet" (2012) and the movie-industry based comedy "The Remake" (2016).

June Lockhart turns 94 today, and we here at Shades of Gray wish her a Happy Birthday!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Musical Monday with whenyoung

Last month, Irish indie-rock trio whenyoung (Aiofe Power, Niall Burns, and Andrew Flood) released their debut album, "Reasons to Dream". I think their song, "Future" is a great tune with which to get your work-week started right.

"Future" is a song about how you should never let darkness and dispair overtake you, but always hold onto the hope that the future will bring better times and strive to reach that future. The fantastic video (directed by Michael Baldwin and starring the very talented child actor Badger Skelton) can be watched below. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Move over Romeo & Juliet... because here come Buster & Ginnie!

Neighbors (1920)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, and Eddie Cline
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A romantic relationship between two neighbor teens (Keaton and Fox) triggers a feud between their parents, and eventually throws their entire neighborhood chaos.

"Neighbors" starts with a "Romeo and Juliet" vibe, with two young lovers who just want  and then spirals outward outward into total chaos. Within the space of less than 18 minutes, this film moves from being a spoof of a stereotypical melodrama (about young lovers being kept apart by angry parents) into being a wild series of crazy slapstick routines and acrobatic stunts (as Buster alternately tries to circumvent the angry fathers to make time with the love of his life, tries to get back at her father for standing in his way, and then tries to avoid arrest after mistakingly bopping a beat cop on the head), before circling back around to satire by poking fun at the court system and ultimately returning to making fun of melodramas as the star-crossed lovers try to get married.

Like most of the Keaton short films I've watched, "Neighbors" has a dream-like quality about it where life itself seems to be a series of non-sequitors and everyone seems, annoyingly, to be getting in the way of achieving even the simplest of goals, no matter how hard you trying to avoid them and run around them. (Although, maybe, the fact that I consider this to be dream-like may say more about me than it does about the movie...)

"Neighbors" was the first short that Buster Keaton made with Virginia Fox, and for most of her roles during the rest of her career, she would be teamed with him; Fox retired from acting in 1925 after marrying Hollywood Kingpin Darryl F. Zanuck. Fox is a decent performer, but she's no Sybil Seely, who was prettier, more charismatic, and whom Keaton reportedly would have liked to have made more films with if Seely had been available.

But why don't you take a little time out of your day and check out "Neighbors" for yourself? I've embedded the films, via YouTube, so you can enjoy it right here, right now.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Spacegirl Adventures, Part Twenty-one

What Has Gone Before: Cadet Beta, aka Spacegirl, is trapped on Moon Station Delta and is being hunted by the authorities.

By Travis Charest

By Mitch Foust

Friday, June 21, 2019

... the Honorable Betty Boop presiding!

With the Supreme Court of the United States currently handing down decisions, this seems like a great time to post this fun Betty Boop cartoon that I think we can all relate to: We start our day in a great mood, looking forward to whatever it will bring... but encounters with other people soon make us wish that we were a Hangin' Judge with the authority to mete out punishments to fit the crimes of ruining our day and our good mood! (And in addition to its satisfying plot, this great little cartoon features a catchy song that you may find yourself humming later on.)

Judge for a Day (1935)
Starring: Betty Boop (voiced by Mae Questel)
Director: Dave Fleisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Thursday, June 20, 2019

A fresh start for the Todd-starring comedies

Beauty and the Bus (1933)
Starring: Patsy Kelly, Thelma Todd, Don Barclay, and Eddie Baker
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The car that Thelma (Todd) wins in a drawing proves to be bad luck for any driver who shares the road with her on the way home.

After ZaSu Pitts' contract with the Hal Roach Studio expired, and she moved onto other things, Patty Kelly became Thelma Todd's teammate in Roach's attempt at creating the female equavilent of Laurel & Hardy's box office success. "Beauty and the Bus" was the first of nearly 20 shorts for the new pair, and it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Story-wise, this film is a fast-paced series of interconnected and ever-escalating gags that take the main characters from situations that are bad, to worse, to disastrous. On that front, this is a promising start for what I hope will make the second half of the Year of the Hot Toddy a lot of fun. (In case you just arrived in these parts, I set myself the goal of watching a film featuring Thelma Todd every week of 2019, because I noticed my "To Be Watched" stack had somehow come to contain an abundance of them.)

One of the strengths of this film is that, although the strong and plentiful supporting cast gets to be just as funny as Kelly and Todd (with Eddie Baker as a traffic cop being foremost among them), the main characters remain at the center of the action instead of being crowded out of the story as happened in some of the films with Pitts and Todd. On the other hand, though, as much fun as her energetic performance was to watch, I found Patsy Kelly's character supremely annoying: She's aggressively stupid to the point where you can't help but wonder why anyone--let alone Todd's character who comes across as slightly aloof--would want to be anywhere near her. Kelly is literally the catalyst for everything that goes wrong for Todd in this picture, including taking her into a ticket and escalating a minor fender-bender into a multi-car accident and full-fledged traffic jam.

Ultimately, though, this film is a lot of fun. The dynamic between Todd's character and Kelly's character is very different than that between Todd and Pitts--it seems to me there was almost always a touch of the genteel in them that is completely absent here. Of course, when you have a stereotypical, short-tempered Fighting Irish(wo)man rampaging through the film, there isn't any room to be ladylike. I look forward to seeing how this team develops. (Although I will probably watch a few of the 10 or so Todd/Pitts shorts I've yet to see before I get back to this line-up.)

 "Beauty and the Bus" is one of 21 short films included in the Complete Hal Roach Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly DVD collection.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

June Clyde was born into a Vaudevillian family, and she made her stage debut at the age of 8 in 1917, singing and dancing her way into the hearts of audiences. She continued performing in shows and musicals throughout her child-  and young adulthood.

Having grown into an attractive and leggy blonde--not to mention a very talented dancer and songstress, Clyde signed a film contract with RKO in 1929. After a few modestly successful musicals, RKO chose not to renew Clyde's contract, and by 1932 she was on her own and competing for roles against a hoard of other pretty and talented blondes.

By the mid-1930s, Clyde had found a niche playing female leads in low-budget comedies and mysteries from Hollywood's Poverty Row Studios. She split her career between the screen and the stage, however , and through the late 1930s and into the 1950s, Clyde appeared in a variety of theatre productions in London's West End.

Clyde retired from acting in 1957, and she retired to her Florida with husband Thornton Freeland (himself a retired film director and writer). She passed away on October 1, 1987, at the age of 77.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

'Little Giant' is a departure from A&C norm

Little Giant (1946)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Jacqueline deWit, Elena Verdugo, George Cleveland, Mary Gordon, and Pierre Watkins
Director: William A. Seiter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Kindhearted, but oh-so-dumb, Benny Miller (Costello) sets out to become a great salesman after completing a correspondence course.

"Little Giant" is very different than any of the dozen or so other films I've seen starring Abbott & Costello. Both headliners are, generally speaking, playing their usual characters (Abbott is sleazy and scheming, while Costello is guileless and honest to a fault), but with more intensity. They are also not allies against a common enemy; here, Abbott plays the part of a full-on villain, and the hapless Costello becomes one of his targets.

According to various commentators, this movie is a departure from the usual  Abbott & Costello model of including numerous Vaudeville-inspired routines either because the two stars wanted to do something different and stretch themselves, or because they were in the middle of an argument and they didn't speak except when on-set. Whatever the reason, there's a different vibe in the picture that extends well beyond the absence of the expected comedy routines. (There is still a single "traditional" routine in it, though.)

"Little Giant" sees Bud Abbott playing two different roles--a pair of identical cousins who are both sales mangers in the Hercules Vacuum Company. One is a crook who is skimming from the company and the other is a hard-working, honest man who wants to see his staff and company do as well as it can. Both have interactions with Costello's character, and each have a hand in his fate as a salesman to some degree. It's interesting to watch Abbott play an out-and-out bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever--no matter how big a sleazebag he's been in other movies, at least he was a kinda-sorta a friend to Costello's character, even if it was an exploitive and abusive one. And, on the flipside, he also gets to play a nice, honorable character for once; the "good cousin" at Hercules Vaccum Company is a thoroughly professional manager who holds himself and his people to account and is one of the more likable characters in the film.

Meanwhile, Lou Costello is playing the typical babe-the-woods character, but without the usual bullying/guiding force of an Abbott-type character on his side, he comes across as even more hapless and hopeless than ever. I almost felt guilty laughing at his antics and pratfalls, and I felt deeply sorry for him when he became an object of mockery by his fellow sales associates. On the other hand, it was even more satisfying than ever before to watch him emerge victorious as a direct result of their mistreatment... and it was even more heartbreaking that ever to watch the villain get the upper-hand again and send poor Benny Miller slinking back to his hometown with his spirit completely broken. (In fact, One of the saddest scenes I've ever seen in a comedy happens toward the end of the film.)

Things look so dark toward the end of this film that when the happy ending does manifest, it felt a little forced. Although it follows perfectly logically from the events of the film (with the exception that one of the supporting characters must have grown a spine off-camera to bring it about), it still feels tacked on because of the emotional whiplash the audience is subjected to in the space of a few short minutes. Maybe if there had been some stronger hint of the trigger that sets everything onto a path toward a just end for the film's characters the ending would have felt a little more motivated; I can't really make up my mind on that count.

.All in all, though, this unusual Abbott & Costello film is well worth a viewing for those who enjoy their regular fair, as well as those who enjoy a well-made comedy. "Little Giant" is a fun story that's  performed by a talented cast. It's one of the eight movies included in The Best of Abbott & Costello Volume 2.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

'Two-Gun Gussie' is fun, but not remarkable

Two-Gun Gussie (1918)
Starring: Harold Lloyd, William Blaisedell, Charles Stevenson, Harry Pollard, and Bebe Daniels
Director: Al Goulding
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A brutish trouble-maker (Blaisedell) swaps his photo in a police alert for that of a mild-mannered piano-player at the local saloon (Lloyd). When everyone starts treating the piano-man like a desperado, he becomes so convinced of his toughness that he eventually goes toe-to-toe with the man whose reputation was pinned on him.

"Two-Gun Gussie" is a fast-paced spoof of westerns that has very little plot to get in the way of the jokes... and what there is of a plot doesn't make a whole lot sense and feels forced. Since this film is only 10 minutes long that hardly matters though. This is one where you should just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The film is at its best during the kinda-sorta shoot-out between Harold and bartender 'Snub' Pollard, although Harold trying to intimidate the tough guy like he does the townspeople will also inspire a chuckle or two. The most disappointing aspect of the film is that Bebe Daniels is almost totally wasted in the role of a Salvation Army fund-raiser, with very little to do but be the object of a ridiculous insta-romance between herself and the main character. (One thing though--if there was ever any question that it's her playing Dorothy in the "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (1910) , this film should put that to rest; the panicked genstures she makes here are exactly like those she made as a young child actress.)

I've made it easy for you to enjoy this fun little film; it's embedded in its entirety below, via YouTube. I hope you enjoy it!

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Milla Jovovich Quarterly

They say that strange women laying around in ponds and distributing swords may not be a good basis for a government... but how about we try Millas sitting around in parks and distributing swords?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

'One Track Minds' is off the tracks

One Track Minds (1933)
Starring: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Lucien Prival, George McFarland, Billy Gilbert, and Jack Rube
Director: Gus Meins
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

While traveling by train to California for a screen test, Thelma (Todd) finds herself in the same train car as the pompous film director (Prival) who will decide her future movie career.

"One Track Minds" was the last film that Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts made together, and I wish I could say their team-up ended on a high note. It did not. Pitts' contract with the Hal Roach Studio was up, and she was ready to move onto other things... and I think that maybe this film was a casualty of a desire to get one last contribution from the Todd/Pitts team as ZaSu was on her way out the door.

I say this because this is not so much a film as a series of gags thrown together with train travel as a kinda-sorta uniting theme. Not a whole lot of effort appears to have been put into developing any sort of coherent storyline, nor even many of the jokes themselves.

The though-line of the film is mockery of Hollywood's celebrity culture, with ambitions, dream-filled starlets and arrogant, self-absorbed movie directors, but the film meanders through several rail-traveling "slice-of-life" scenes involving Pitt's child or little brother--it's never established what their relationship is--and Pitt and Todd's interaction with various other kooky people in the train. The end result is that this feels more like a collection of vaguely related sketches than a coherent movie, a feeling that's underscored by the fact the film doesn't have an ending; it just ends, with none of its plot threads resolved, or even developed, to any degree whatsoever.

It's a shame the film isn't more coherent and the jokes aren't better developed, because the cast are all doing their absolute best with what they have to work with. The greatest shame, though, might be that because the film is so unfocused, Pitts and Todd are almost crowded out of their own movie. Lucien Prival (as the stuck-on-himself, flamboyant film director), Billy Gilbert (as the conductor who has to deal with the nuts on his train) and Jack Rube (as a deaf beekeeper who is traveling in the passenger car with his bees) all have more interesting parts than the two stars. In fact, Todd has virtually nothing to do in the picture.

While this was the last film Todd and Pitts made together, it won't be the last of their pairings I'll be covering as the Year of the Hot Toddy continues. I jumped to the end of the cycle, because I've been somewhat disappointed in their quality. Thelma Todd made some excellent shorts with Charley Chase, but only one where she was teamed with Pitts was even close to as good. I hoped that by the end whatever wasn't clicking had clicked... but "One Track Minds" has bigger problems than any of the previous Todd/Pitts films (Although I also felt they were crowded out of their own picture in their first official teaming in "Catch-As-Catch-Can", so maybe this was a common thing?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

June Brewster made her film debut in 1932, at the age of 19. After a series of uncredited roles and unremarkable bit parts, she took a step toward movie fame as a co-star of the RKO's "The Blonde and the Redhead" series of short films.

During 1933 and 1934, Brewster was at her busiest. She led five installments of "The Blonde and the Redhead," as well as small parts of varying importance in seven other films. However, as 1935 dawned, her career sputtered and stalled, even before it had fully launched.

Brewster appeared in nine films between 1935 and 1938, with each part being smaller than the one before. She ended her short film career as it began, with a couple unremarkable, uncredited roles.

Brewster married vice-cop-turned-organized-crime-figure-and-casino-mogul Guy McAfee in 1936. The couple relocated to Nevada in 1939 where McAfee became one of the founding fathers of the Las Vegas gambling mecca that we know today. Brewster and McAfee divorced in 1941, but she remained a resident of Las Vegas until her death on August 2, 1995.

Monday, June 10, 2019

It's Vampire Weekend on a Musical Monday

Is this confusing? Starting the week with Vampire Weekend? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, this Grammy Award winning band (2014, Best Alternative Music Album for "Modern Vampires of the City") will get your week started right.

Below, is the video for "This Life" off their latest album, "Father of the Bride". Vampire Weekend is currently touring the U.S. in support of this new release, proving that alternative rock is alive and well in 2019 (or possibly undead).

Sunday, June 9, 2019

'Cops': Filmed on location in Crazytown!

Cops (1922)
Starring: Buster Keaton
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Through a series of missteps and misunderstandings, a young man (Keaton) trying to win his girlfriend's hand in marriage ends up being chased by the city's entire police force.

There are three kinds of people who get in trouble with the police: The criminal, the stupid, and the unlucky. In the space of this film's 18-minute running time, Buster Keaton character is every one of those. He steals some money (from someone who just happens to be the police commissioner), he is conned into buying property from someone who doesn't actually own it (but some of it belongs to a police officer), and he inadvertently becomes the center and perpetrator of a terrorist attack on a police parade.

"Cops" is a little slow in the wind-up (although it opens strong with an excellent site gag that plays with audience expectations given the title), but once it really gets going it's a one long, hilarious chase scene.

Like almost every Keaton short I've written about in this space, I feel like I can't go into too much detail without ruining the amazement you'll feel the first time watching the events unfold  I will say, though, that the stunt involving Keaton balancing on a ladder atop a fence while cops on both sides are trying to get at him is worth sitting through the film almost all by itself.

Above, you can see that I only listed one star of this film. While Joe Roberts (as a cop from whom Keaton's character steals money) Virginia Fox (the girl he is trying to impress), and Steve Murphy (as a con man who rips him off) all play pivotal characters in the plot, Buster Keaton is the only true star of this picture. He owns this film from the first moment though the very last frame (even if only his hat appears in it).

If you like rambunctious comedies, whether you admire cops or are more likely to walk around saying "fuck the police", I think this is a film you'll enjoy the heck out of. I've embedded the film below, so you can watch it right here, right now. It may well be the funniest 18 minutes of your day!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Picture Perfect Wednesday: It's June!

June Haver is this year's first Picture Perfect Wednesday June in June!

June Haver was, appropriately enough, born on June 10, 1926, and she began acting on stage at the age of 6. By age 10, she was gaining celebrity locally in Illinois by singing on radio. She toured with bands in her early teens, and by the age of 17, she was signed to a contract with Fox. 

After a few unmarkable bit-parts, Haver played lead roles in "Irish Eyes are Smiling" (1944) and "Where Do We Go From Here?" (1945) and her star was on the rise. Equally adept at singing, dancing, and acting, she was being groomed by Fox to be the "next Betty Grable", but in she abruptly quit show business and entered a convent to become a nun following the sudden death of her fiance, John Duzik, in 1953. Her last film role was "The Girl Next Door" (1953).

Haver was only in the convent for a few months, because a serious illness forced to return to the outside world. Although she had initially intended to return to the life of a nun after recovering, she never did. Instead, in 1964, she married actor Fred MacMurray, whom she had met while filming "Where Do We Go From Here?"

Haver made a couple half-hearted stabs at returning to acting in the late 1950s, but her main interest for the rest of her life was her family, which included two children from MacMurray's previous marriage and a pair of twin girls they adopted together.

June Haver passed away at the age of 79 on July 4, 2005.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Laurel & Hardy Meet The Devil's Brother

The Devils' Brother (aka "Bogus Bandits") (1933)
Starring: Dennis King, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Thelma Todd, James Finlayson, Lucile Browne, and Arthur Pierson,
Directors: Hal Roach and Charley Rogers
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After his men rob a pair of travelers (Laurel and Hardy) of their life's savings, the notorious bandit Fra Diavolo (King) forces them to help him rob a fabulously wealthy nobleman (Finlayson) and his slutty wife (Todd). Meanwhile a young army officer (Pierson) is on Fra Diavolo's trail, hoping to catch him and earn the reward money so he can marry his beloved (Browne).

Reportedly, "The Devil's Brother" was one of Laurel & Hardy's highest grossing movie. They may have been the names and faces on the poster that drew the crowds, but they were far from the best part of this film.

Since Laurel & Hardy are the clowns in this film adaptation of an operetta, it's to be expected that they are basically supporting characters in a film they're headlining, but Roach and his co-director could at least have made sure that when they do appear on-screen, they are in top form. Instead, almost ever bit they do drags on for too long and even their trademark character touches are overplayed here. The only exception to this are the goofy games/feats that Laurel's character comes up with, and which go viral among other characters who are unable to replicate them

It's a shame that Laurel & Hardy's bits were padded to the degree they were, because everything else about the film is entertaining, and the rest of the cast are good in their roles. Even Laurel & Hardy aren't bad per se... I just think they could have been better.

I had to do a bit of a mental adjustment as the film unfolded, because, when it comes to period pieces like this, I am used to the bandit posing as a nobleman to being of a heroic figure. Fra Diavalo, however, is a villain, through and through. It's somewhat satisfying that his plot ultimately fails due to his own cruelty and coldbloodness, but the ending isn't what I really wanted for the character. It's a testament to Dennis King's acting ability that I so disliked Fra Diavolo; his facial expressions change beautifully from when he's not being watched to when he's pretending to be the Marquis de San Marco. King was first and foremost a stage actor, but his performance here demonstrates that he could probably have been a  big movie star, too. He had a strong grasp of the differences between playing to the back rows of a theatre auditorium, and performing for film cameras.

Another standout cast member was James Finlayson. He had more to do in this film than was typical for his Laurel & Hardy appearances, and he's a lot of fun as the super-rich old guy with a slutty trophy wife. The bit where he's trying to catch his wife cheating on him is especially amusing.

Speaking of the slutty wife, she's portrayed by Thelma Todd with the zest she brought to almost every role she played. There's really not much for her to do here but to bat her eyes and respond coyly to the romantic overtures from Fra Diavalo in his guise as a traveling nobleman. (Todd would play the same kind of character again in the 1934 film "Cockeyed Cavaliers", but the part was meatier and she had more of an opportunity to show that she was a talented actress as well as good-looking.)

Since "The Devil's Brother" is an operetta, I should probably comment on the music and songs featured in it. I don't have much to say as only two songs stood out.. and they happen to be the two that were also central to moving the plot along. Even so, I didn't find them all that remarkable... but then I'm a Philistine.

First, there is Fra Diavolo's Theme Song, which he travels the countryside singing and striking terror in the hearts of all who hear it. Dennis King performs it several times during the film, and it's a nice little tune, even if the lyrics are a bit nonsensical. (I admit that a literal Singing Bandit is a bit silly for me to take, even in a comic operetta.)

Second, there's the song performed by Lucile Browne, who, stripped down to her underwear, admires herself in a mirror and sings about what a hottie she is. Although this comes across as just so much 1930s Fan Service, it actually ends up being crucial to the story... even if it's a highly ridiculous moment and the "I can't believe I'm hearing this" look on Ollie's face reflects exactly how I felt watching it.

Finally, Laurel & Hardy's unofficial theme "KuKu" is used to introduce them twice in the film. It seems very out of place, especially the second time it crops up. This may be an even worse choice than letting most of their routines go on for too long, as it's stylistically out of place with the rest of the music in the film.

"The Devil's Brother" is a fun, but flawed movie. Big-time fans of Laurel & Hardy might want to put it on their "To Be Watched" list... but I don't know that anyone else would want to go out of their way for it.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...